When Tokyo Moved West

How the megapolis got its modern shape (Taishō, Part 2B)

Among many other changes ushered in by the Taishō (大正時代, 1912–26) era, increasing industrialization caused a huge shift of Japan’s population away from rural areas and into urban centers. None more so than the city itself, which naturally needed to expand to accommodate the influx of people, and changed to assume much of the form we recognize today. The growth also shifted traditional centers within the city toward the west, was to continue on into the postwar growth of areas such as Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿).

While Nihombashi had been the center of commerce in the Edo era and remained so through the Meiji period (江戸時代, 1603–1868 and 明治, 1868–1912), with the sudden and massive growth in Taishō, other areas naturally began to sprout as well. Retail sales remained largely centered in Nihombashi, in particular at massive new department stores such as Mitsukoshi (三越) and Shirokiya (白木屋), but other areas came to be the centers for other activities. The former still has its main branch in Nihombashi, while the latter’s setbacks due to the earthquake and war were less recoverable, though it still has a few stores, including its headquarters in Honolulu. Marunouchi (丸の内) and Ginza (銀座) blossomed as districts for business and pleasure respectively.

Marunouchi, a district I mentioned in Part 2A as the location for the first biru, was the smallest of these moves—essentially from one side of Tokyo Station to the other. Nihombashi sits just to the east of the station, while Marunouchi grew just to its west. The area, a filled-in portion of Tokyo Bay, had been purchased from the Meiji government in 1890 by the Mitsubishi company (三菱), being known for a while as the Mitsubishi Meadow (三菱ヶ原, Mitsubishigahara). The name Marunouchi attests the area’s origin as part of the castle’s fortifications, as it means “within the circle” (i.e., of walls).

Things began to change in Taishō, and in addition to headquartering their own company there, Mitsubishi began to develop the area for other businesses as well. In particular, the major banks moved in and the Tokyo Station building I discussed previously was notably built on the Marunouchi side of the station. The Mitsubishi group still owns much of the area today, and Japan’s top three banks remain headquartered there. Marunouchi also presents a stark contrast between old and new, with the moat separating a feudal stronghold from the skyscrapers of one of the largest business districts in the world.

Nearly due south of Marunouchi, what was to become Ginza was a neighborhood of tightly packed wooden buildings, much like the rest of the Edo-period city. What cleared the way for the area’s growth in the new era, was not a grand plan, like the Haussmannization of Paris, but a fire.

Fires were all too common among the Edo buildings, because of their crowding as well as the building materials, which were mainly wood and paper. Smallish blazes were so common there was a saying that, “Fires and fights are the flowers of Edo”.¹ But in 1872, a large one gutted most of Ginza. The Meiji government saw an upside to this and decided to rebuild the area as a Westernized model of modernization, which came to be known as the “Bricktown” (煉瓦街, Rengagai). The main planner of the Ginza Bricktown was expatriate Irish architect Thomas Waters, who had somehow managed to build a career in Japan even before Japan’s opening to the West. By the time of his work in Ginza he was employed as Surveyor-General and foreign advisor to the Meiji Government. Nonetheless, by 1878, he too fell prey to souring attitudes toward foreign designers and left seeking better fortunes elsewhere.

Waters did see the Bricktown through to its completion in 1875, but it was hardly a smashing success. The Georgian-style buildings were an impressive sight, but while the brick construction did provide a decent amount of fire resistance, it was not well suited to the humid environment of Japan and they tended to be quite damp and prone to mildew. This meant few people were willing to pay the high asking prices, and many of the buildings stood empty.

The broad main thoroughfare of Ginza Dōri (銀座通り), initially mainly for foot traffic, was restructured to include streetcar and automobile traffic as well. This was essentially a road-building pilot for the country, and it was decided that Nicolson pavement would be used, consisting of wooden blocks with asphalt in the interstices, commonly used in Europe from the mid-19th century. Such a road was obviously cheap to construct, as well as being hard wearing, softer on the feet of both pedestrians and horses, as well as reducing the noise of wagon-wheels in city centers. However, this type of surface was already obsolescent for reasons the Japanese were soon to discover: when it rained—as it frequently does in Japan—the blocks floated away, and when it was hot, the asphalt melted.² While the areas for pedestrians and vehicles were clearly delineated by the willows the district came to be known for, cars and trolleys vied for right of way in a street without lanes marked out for each. In the end, the street caught fire, thus bookending Taishō Ginza between conflagrations.

The new brick buildings worked as advertised at least in this regard and the blaze only seems to have affected the street, which was replaced with a more conventional one afterwards. As for the willows, even though they remain strongly associated with the area—there is still an annual willow celebration in Ginza—a typhoon had severely damaged them even before the street fire, and they had been replaced with hardier ginkgos.

The Tokyo subway, now so central to the city’s identity also began, if not in Ginza proper, with the Ginza Line (Ginza-sen, 銀座線). It was the result of a 1914 visit to London by businessman Hayakawa Noritsugu (早川 徳次). He saw the need for a system like the Underground, which was to become the first subway in East Asia.

The source of inspiration, and also the builders of the world’s first subway, the UK also provided experts to get the project underway. Some eclecticism was shown when it came to the cars, which were built on the boxy lines of New York’s rather than the Tube’s cylindrical model.

At its 1927 opening, the subway was only the portion of the modern Ginza line that stretches from Ueno (上野) to Asakusa (浅草). It was too short to be useful, falling well short of its aim to run through Ginza and end at Shimbashi (新橋), which had a station already serviced by other trains so making it a sensible terminus. Nonetheless, the novelty of the subway seems to have won out, as people would wait sometimes as long as two hours to travel along the five minutes of track. Just as the city itself, the line continued to extend westward, and its modern terminus is now Shibuya.

This tale of the difficulties in getting around in the rapidly swelling city is far from unique. Tanizaki Junichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) wrote of the poor state of the roads, and related the following of the overburdened streetcar system:³

For the general populace there was no means of transport but the streetcar. Car after car would come by full and leave people waiting at stops. At rush hour the press was murderous. Hungry and tired, the office worker and the laborer, in a hurry to get home, would push their way aboard a car already hopelessly full, each one for himself, paying no attention to the attempts of the conductor to keep order […]. The crowds, a black mountain outside a streetcar would push and shove and shout […]. They put up with it because they were Japanese, I heard it said, but if a European or American city were subjected to such things for even a day there would be rioting.

The crowding he refers to meshes with the modern image of the city, but it seems to have been still worse; there is an orderliness and etiquette involved in ridership today even under extreme conditions. Obasan seem to be the sole exception—they routinely throw elbows and stamp on insteps to get to the coveted seats beside train doors. The phenomenon inspired the term obatarian (オバタリアン), a punning portmanteau of おば (oba, “middle-aged woman”) and the Japanese title, 『バタリアン』(Batarian, kanaized from “battalion”), of the 1985 film The Return of the Living Dead.

Returning to Ginza, by the late Meiji period, the Ginza began to come into its own with the advent of bazaars in the area. The forerunners of modern department stores, these large, multi-story buildings housed a large number of small shops selling goods such as toys, stationery, and books. By 1902 there were seven such bazaars in Ginza.

The other element that cemented the status of Ginza in the Taishō was the opening of Café Printemps in 1911. A painter named Matsuyama Shozo, who had returned from studying abroad in Paris, wanted to reproduce the atmosphere of the cafés of the French capital. Matsuyama succeeded; people from the art world, such as painters and poets, as well as others who had been abroad, came there to socialize. The Café was quickly followed by imitators like Café Paulista, Café Lion, Café Tiger, etc.

In short, Ginza became what is known as a sakariba. Made up of the words 盛り (sakari) “height” and 場 (ba) “place”, it might be directly translated as “amusement quarter”. Even this term was changing in Taishō, moving toward its modern meaning as a place with crowds, neon lights, and dozens of small drinking establishments.

The Edo-period origins of the sakariba were actually of three types: open outdoor spaces where people could gather in times of disaster along riverbanks, etc. and which in good times could be used by vendors and those offering attractions; areas outside of temples, where similar activities occurred, such as Asakusa; and red-light districts such as Yoshiwara (吉原). Ginza was the first of a new breed, according to Japanese studies professor Sepp Linhart:⁴

Ginza’s rise to preeminence […] mirrors the shift from entertainment catering to the old Tokugawa middle class of small businessmen and artisans to the new middle class of salaried white collar workers and professionals.

In Kurosawa Akira’s (黒澤明) 1949 film, Stray Dog (『野良犬』), the sakariba is the seedy underworld into which rookie homicide detective, Murakami (村上刑事; played by Mifune Toshiro, 三船敏郎), must blend if he is to find his stolen gun.

While it may seem strange, the crowdedness of these areas is part of the allure for the Japanese:⁵

What for many Europeans may be something quite unpleasant, seems to be for Japanese an enjoyable setting. Many Japanese […] simply cannot fall into a relaxed, leisurely mood if a sakariba is not full of people. They are disappointed if too few people are there […].

Japanese sociologist Ikei Nozomu (池井 望) even coined the term zatto no miryoku—“fascination of the crowd” (雑踏の魅力) to describe this element of the appeal of the sakariba.⁶

In any case, the emergence of the busy aspect of these districts seems to have corresponded to Ginza’s rise: Trendy shopfronts and innumerable cafes came to characterize the area, but, as previously noted, Ginza wasn’t really a retail center, it was one for window shopping and idling. Mobo and Moga flocked to the area, but mostly just to see and be seen—to be part of the crowd. The activity was so specific to these people and this area, that it was called gimbura (銀ブラ): “wasting time in Ginza”, derived from Ginza and ぶらぶら (burabura) “wandering aimlessly”. Fashionable attire was part of the gimbura scene, and single men could remove the awkwardness of strolling alone by hiring a “walking stick girl” (sutekki gāru, ステッキ ガール) to accompany them for two yen.

Even in the days of the 1918 Rice Riots(米騒動, kome sōdō), Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風, the pseudonym of Japanese writer Nagai Sōkichi, 永井 壮吉) detected a certain air of leisureliness among the dissidents in Ginza:⁷

I heard later that the rioting always occurred in the cool of evening. There was a good moon every evening during those days. Hearing that the rioters gathered menacingly before the houses of the wealthy when the evening had turned cool and the moon had come up, I could not put down a feeling that there was something easy and comfortable about it all. It went on for five or six days and then things returned to normal. On the night of the return to normal, it rained.

As Tanizaki noted with some bitterness of the era, “Old Japan had been left behind and new Japan had not yet come.”⁸ Many of the forms we associate with Tokyo as well as Japan emerged during Taishō, but as we have seen, many were only rough prototypes. The earthquake, economic depression and WWII would ruin the chances for some of them to reach perfection, but others would eventually come to define modern Japan.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture


  1. In Japanese, the saying runs: 火事と喧嘩は江戸の華, (kaji to kenka wa Edo no hana).
  2. There were other issues with Nicolson pavement as well: they could be quite slippery when wet or icy, the blocks tended to rot, and when moisture seeped in, the blocks would swell, causing the surface to buckle. Susceptibility to fire could be dealt with by treating the blocks with creosote, but then there was a significant unpleasant smell and it is also a toxic chemical.
  3. Quoted from Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, 1983, which I have consulted throughout.
  4. Sepp Linhart, “Sakariba: zone of ‘evaporation’ between work and home?”, Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, Joy Hendry, ed., 1998.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ikei Nozomu, 「盛 り場行 動. 論-空 間 と娯楽」 (“Behavioral Theory of the Sakariba: Theory Space and Entertainment”), 1973.
  7. Seidensticker, 1983.
  8. Ibid.

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